Archive for the ‘science’ Category

In Sky Walking (2006), Dr. Tom Jones recounts his career as a NASA astronaut. Beginning with the application process, Jones takes us on a journey of becoming an astronaut, flying four space shuttle missions, and helping to construct the International Space Station.

The book provides glimpses into the rigorous training astronauts receive in preparation for their work in space, and in particular, for extravehicular activities (EVA). Before each space flight, the astronauts would complete mock missions underwater using shuttle and ISS replicas fascinating. If you calculate the cost of an EVA, from launch to landing back on Earth, every minute must be immensely expensive. Every manoeuver, every task, has to be choreographed and rehearsed for maximum efficiency and safety. Even small issues easily solved on Earth can become mission-crippling obstacles in space, and Dr. Jones  faced his share, including an irreversibly jammed hatch that resulted in a canceled EVA and an improperly-assembled elbow joint that caused enough pain to make competing that EVA a challenge. An even more dangerous case comes to mind: Luca Parmitano’s 2013 ISS mission during which his helmet began filling with water due to a malfunctioning filter while on EVA. Docking operations between the Space Shuttle and ISS were also fraught with dangerous possibilities, and Dr. Jones’ account of these procedures and the astronauts’ calm but meticulous piloting fascinated me. It may be a good indicator of our finally having made the leap to a space-based, multi-planet society when mishaps like these no longer happen or are more easily resolved when they do.

Another aspect of the book is its account of the lead up, politically and practically, to the design, construction, and operation of the ISS. Not only did Dr. Jones fly a shuttle mission (STS-98) as part of ISS construction, but he played a not-insubstantial role in managing NASA’s ISS Program, including the international partnerships that made it possible. NASA’s interactions with the Russian Government, in particular, make for great reading if you’re interested in how the ISS came to be.  I was interested, but not surprised, by the political, diplomatic and logistical difficulties that had to be overcome to build the ISS. That those obstacles were surmounted reinforces my perception of the ISS as a great example of how the human race can work together to accomplish amazing things. In the book, that spirit is clearly on display by the ISS astronauts (and cosmonauts) themselves whose comradery extends across borders forming a uniquely stateless community in space.

Dr. Jones completes the book with a short passage explaining his ideas and recommendations for how human space exploration ought to move forward. While just a bit outdated now, 11 years later, his thoughts on where we should go next are still relevant. A quick reveal—he’s not a fan of more lunar missions and instead recommends targeting a NEA (near-Earth asteroid) before tackling Mars. Regardless of our next destination, we can all thank astronauts like Dr. Jones for paving the way.


Lab Girl is foremost a biography tracing the arc of Ms. Jahren’s life from a childhood in a small Minnesota town first learning about science from a loving father, onwards through graduate school, then moving through a series of professorships across the U.S. Jahren provides a raw, unfiltered glimpse of one scientist’s personal journey to succeed using every tool at her disposal, including a wild sense of humor, an unremitting endurance, and a maniacal joy in the process of discovery, one measurement at a time.

“A seed knows how to wait. Most seeds wait for at least a year before starting to grow; a cherry seed can wait for a hundred years with no problem. What exactly each seed is waiting for is known only to that seed. Some unique trigger-combination of temperature-moisture-light and many other things is required to convince a seed to jump off the deep end and take its chance—to take its one and only chance to grow…apple_seeds_-_variety_minister_von_hammerstein_aka

…When you go into a forest you probably tend to look up at the plants that have grown so much taller than you ever could. You probably don’t look down, where just beneath your single footprint sit hundreds of seeds, each one alive and waiting. They hope against hope for an opportunity that will probably never come. More than half of these seeds will die before they feel the trigger that they are waiting for, and during awful years every single one of them will die. All this death hardly matters, because the single birch tree towering over you produces at least a quarter of a million new seeds every single year. When you are in the forest, for every tree that you see, there are at least a hundred more trees waiting in the soil, alive and fervently wishing to be.”

Jahren’s challenges included an endless struggle for financial solvency, one annual budget at a time, overcoming bipolar disorder and its debilitating effects, and enduring a difficult pregnancy made no easier by an unsympathetic faculty. The message, at least for me, is scientists are people, like anyone else, managing their own problems. It’s easy to forget when Science’s success stories are continually put on display without note of any mortal struggles they may have faced or the casualties of the scientific system who might have been scientists under less adverse conditions.

“No risk is more terrifying than that taken by the first root. A lucky root will eventually find water, but its first job is to anchor—to anchor an embryo and forever end its mobile phase, however passive that mobility was. Once the first root is extended, the plant will never again enjoy any hope (however feeble) of relocating to a place less cold, less dry, less dangerous. Indeed, it will face frost, drought, and greedy jaws without any possibility of flight. The tiny rootlet has only one chance to guess what the future years, decades—even centuries—will bring to the patch of soil where it sits. It assesses the light and humidity Bark Nature Old Log Tree Root Tree Root Woodof the moment, refers to its programming, and quite literally takes the plunge.

Everything is risked in that one moment when the first cells (the “hypocotyl”) advance from the seed coat. The root grows down before the shoot grows up, and so there is no possibility for green tissue to make new food for several days or even weeks. Rooting exhausts the very last reserves of the seed. The gamble is everything, and losing means death. The odds are more than a million to one against success.”

Aside from milestones, the book details not just Jahren’s challenges as a woman scientist but also her scientific adventures in foreign lands: the Arctic Circle, the hills of Ireland, and Mississippi. Field trips teaching students soil science seem better described as road trips with Jahren’s dryly humorous recollections of bare-bones camping and oddball detours. Throughout her career, She is held up by a persistent and enduring friendship with her lab assistant, Bill, a friendship that defies easy categorization but is touching nonetheless.

“The day after the University of Minnesota conferred upon me a bachelor’s degree cum laude, I dumped off my winter clothes in a big pile at the Salvation Army on Lake Street, took Hiawatha Avenue south to Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport, and flew to San Francisco. After I got to Berkeley, I didn’t so much meet Bill. It was more like I identified him…

…It took me about a week to notice that one of our undergraduate students—the one who looked like a young Johnny Cash and was perennially clad in jeans and a leather jacket even in 105-degree heat—always somehow ended up several meters away from the edge of the group, digging his own private hole… …I looked at the course roster and determined by process of elimination that the loner’s name was Bill. I went over and interrupted his solitary work. “How are you doing? Do you have any questions or anything?”

Without looking up, Bill refused my help, saying, “Nah. I’m good.” I stood there for a minute and then walked away and checked on another group, evaluated their progress, and answered some questions. About thirty minutes later, I noticed that Bill was now digging a second hole, his first one having been carefully refilled and smoothed over at its top. I picked up his clipboard and saw that his soil evaluation had been completed meticulously and that he had also included his second-best answers in a separate column down the right side of the page. At the very top of his report, suitability for “infrastructure” was checked, and a specification of “juvenile detention center” had been added in careful handwriting.

I stood next to his hole. “Looking for gold?” I joked, trying to strike up a conversation.

“No. I just like to dig,” he explained without stopping. “I used to live in a hole.””

Jahren is not afraid to delve into her own failures. Failures I suspect most scientists experience but rarely divulge. Throughout the book, she explains selected research projects: from genesis of a hypothesis or question through overcoming technical hurdles to finally answering the question.

The biography is interspersed by beautifully written descriptions of life from a plant’s perspective: the gamble every seed must make, a taproot’s life-or-death quest for water and nutrients, a tree’s adolescence, maturation and death. These passages allowed me to see through Jahren’s scientific eye—how she must perceive things, adopting as much as possible, a plant’s context to enable her to gain insight into the omnipresent, but generally overlooked, green life around us.

“The leaves of the world comprise countless billion elaborations of a single, simple machine designed for one job only—a job upon which hinges humankind. Leaves make sugar. Plants are the only things in the universe that can make sugar out of nonliving inorganic matter. All the sugar that you have ever eaten was first made within a leaf. leaf_1_webWithout a constant supply of glucose to your brain, you will die. Period. Under duress, your liver can make glucose out of protein or fat—but that protein or fat was originally constructed from a plant sugar within some other animal. It’s inescapable: at this very moment, within the synapses of your brain, leaves are fueling thoughts of leaves.”

Her writing possesses a poetry, her eloquent prose mingled with, at times, a cringe-inducing honesty that will make her scientific ideas uniquely available to a non-scientific audience. Her unabashed, general weirdness is delightful and refreshing (speaking as a bonafide weirdo myself). In the end, Jahren’s story is one of survival and more—she seems to define and arrive at her own version of success and happiness.

“A new mind-set became imperative: perhaps I could learn to see the world as plants do, put myself in their place, and puzzle out how they work. As a terminal outsider to their world, how close could I come to getting inside? I tried to visualize a new environmental science that was not based on the world that we wanted with plants in it, but instead based on a vision of the plants’ world with us in it. I thought of the different labs that I had worked in and the wonderful machines, chemicals, and microscopes that gave me so much happiness . . . What kind of hard science could I bring to bear on this weird quest?

The perversity of such an approach was seductive; what was there to stop me, aside from my own fear of being “unscientific”? I knew that if l told people I was studying “what it’s like to be a plant,” some would dismiss me as a joke, but perhaps others might sign on just for the adventure. Maybe hard work could stabilize scientifically shaky ground. I didn’t know for sure, but I felt the first delicious twinges of what would be my life’s enduring thrill. It was a new idea, my first real leaf. Just like every other audacious seedling in the world, I would make it up as I went along.”

In some ways, Jahren’s book aligns with my own experience of the world of academic science as a system in which the struggle for money dominates and senior scientists manage rather than conduct science. I declined a life of always competing for grant funding, where competition seems to overshadow collaboration. I lost faith in my own ability to ask the right questions and find the answers, but not for a lack of curiosity. I suspect successful scientists like Ms. Jahren possess an unquenchable curiosity mingled with enough determination and talent and perhaps just enough mentorship to drive them beyond whatever obstacles lie in their path just like the few seeds who manage to break through to the light.

The Right Kind of Crazy, written by Adam Steltzner with William Patrick, gives a candid glimpse into Steltzner’s career as an engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) culminating in his leading the successful Mars Science Laboratory mission to land the Curiosity rover.

Starting with Steltzner’s somewhat atypical childhood, education, and his landing a job at JPL (no pun intended, really), the book spends considerable time discussing people-oriented topics such as leadership and team dynamics and how those human elements are just as crucial to mission success as the design, building, and testing of the actual spacecraft. He also paints a detailed picture of the inner workings of JPL and the people behind its groundbreaking work.

For science geeks like me, especially those interested in how spacecraft work, the book offers an inside view of the entire process, from the initial choices of what technological approaches will be used (air bags vs. sky crane, guided flight vs. blunt-body entry, etc.), to the seemingly mundane but (to me) still interesting aspects of how big to make the rover wheels, what kind of material to use for the heat shield, and whether the center of navigation was correctly input into the software controlling atmospheric entry. Admittedly, I’m a person who made an exhaustive search of ISS hatch specifications (to add verisimilitude to a key action sequence I was writing), and yes—I enjoyed it. Those less enamored of technology’s inner workings might find some of the book’s mechanical descriptions somewhat dry.

Throughout the book, Steltzner develops what amounts to a philosophy of engineering, in part an acknowledgment of the unknowns that always lurk behind the curtain of reality, and the humility that is necessary to succeed despite those unknowns, to always dig deeper rather than be satisfied with the easy answer until you’re “right enough.” As I was reading the book, the recent crash of the European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli lander made Steltzner’s ideas even more pertinent. I would even suggest they apply beyond the world of engineering, to all of science, and even to everyday life. Steltzner points to the search for truth and understanding as a uniquely human quality. I agree.

Scientific American’s Special September issue arrived at my door recently with an interesting cover: “9 Key Questions about Our Future: We are remaking our world and ourselves. What’s next?” The article in question is titled: “The Human Experiment” and goes on to say: “Our species is transforming itself and the world. We asked, and tried to answer, nine big questions about what these changes mean for our future.”sciam article

Scientific American (SCIAM) has done a great job making well-reasoned, informative predictions based on current science. However, science fiction lover that I am, I wished they had been a little more expansive in their predictions. I thought, I would take this farther. Heck, I have taken this farther. Then it occurred to me it might be fun to do that in a blog post, and here we are. SCIAM’s predictions, paraphrased in italics, and my own predictions follow.

  1. What mark will we leave on the planet?

SCIAM: Yes, through our trash, construction, pollution and nuclear weapons testing, we will have left a geologically-permanent mark on the planet that will persist long into the future. We’ll also affect the fossil record with the unusually high number of extinctions we’re bringing about.

DPS: I agree with SCIAM here. I don’t see how we won’t leave a mark on the planet, chemically and geologically speaking. That being said, I do think there will come a time when we set automata (aka, robots) to the task of cleaning up some of our mess. These would be portable excavators and collectors with the capability of rendering our artificial trash (metals, plastics, concrete, etc.) into either forms that can degrade naturally (crushing concrete, digesting plastics into biodegradable components) or into consolidated, harvestable forms (valuable metals come to mind). Some attempts along these lines are already taking place. I even used this scenario as the setting for my story, Suicide Flight. For me, a more profound question, though, is what will we take away, rather than what will we leave behind? We continue to cause an accelerating mass extinction while homogenizing the remaining species by transporting them around the world either on purpose or by accident. The result will almost certainly be a world biologically much poorer than the one we inherited.

  1. How will climate change affect us?

SCIAM: low-lying areas around the world (much of Florida’s coastline, for example) will be submerged under rising seas. Wildfire and drought frequency will continue to rise. Fisheries may shift geographically. Some areas will become so hot as to be nearly uninhabitable (120 degrees F or more).

DPS: We already strive to create more efficient technologies to use less energy, water, etc. Geo-engineering techniques may help solve the global warning problem, but issues of scale seem daunting. Ultimately, I disagree with the techno-utopians who predict we will invent our way out of global warming. Pollution is largely a social problem, not a technological one. Two or three hundred years ago, everyone’s food was organic, fish and game were abundant (in North America at least), and other than some urban hotspots, pollution hadn’t been invented (yes, there was human waste, but no pesticides, herbicides, industrial solvents, etc.). I predict population control will assume its rightful place on our path towards a more sustainable planet. There is no reason we need to have several billion people on the planet. A genetically and culturally viable human population could be much lower. I suspect this will come about through the education and, ironically, development of the currently underdeveloped world, especially through pursuit of equal rights for women. As the rest of the world becomes developed, despite the resource burden this will create, population growth rates will decrease. With wise stewardship, we can have a healthy, happy human population with a much smaller global footprint.

  1. Who will prosper, and who will fall behind?

SCIAM: global population continues to rise, albeit more slowly. Populations of rich nations will become smaller and older. The other nations’ populations will do the opposite. Feeding the larger human global population will be possible by reducing individuals’ consumption and pursuing sustainable agriculture. A “sixth extinction” event can be avoided if we set aside half the planet as a reserve (this last prediction is by Edward O. Wilson).

DPS: I predict global governance will become increasingly imperative. How can we manage an interconnected planet without managing it on a global scale? The world cannot, IMO, be effectively managed by a set of independent actors. Only by acting as one, will we successfully equalize the economic playing field so the environmental “race to the bottom” will cease (no more manufacturing goods cheaply in countries where environmental pollution and workers’ rights can be ignored). Eliminate counter-productive state aggression and bring everyone up to a sustainable standard of living. If global warming continues to worsen, a global authority will gain power to coordinate and force collective action by all states.

  1. Will Civil Society Endure?

SCIAM: Rising inequality between the rich and poor (or perhaps, the rich and everyone else) will continue to rise and be difficult to counter-act.

DPS: If global governance comes to pass, we may transition towards a post-scarcity economy. As AI and automata/robots take over more and more labor currently provided by humans, new energy sources come on line (dramatically more efficient solar, new renewables such as tidal, and possibly fusion), and population goes down, the divide between rich and poor will diminish. This may be my inner optimist, but I predict such as state may become reality. In that new world, what will be valued? Will wealth no longer exist? How will power be distributed? I’m not an economist, but I am dabbling with some of these ideas in the new novel series I’m working on.

  1. Will we control our genetic destinies?

SCIAM: germ-line modifications (genetic editing that would be passed on to later generations) will soon occur first as a treatment for male infertility. Sex will continue but less often as a way to procreate as embryos begin to be developed by deriving eggs and sperm from stem cells rather than the old-fashioned way. Tissue replacement will become prevalent as a means of replacing aging body parts (this last according to David H. Koch).

DPS: Yes, yes, and yes, but that’s just the beginning. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if germ-line editing has already begun in some secret laboratory somewhere. The technology to do it has advanced by leaps and bounds (take CRISPR, for example) in the mere 63 years since the decoding of DNA by Watson and Crick.

On an individual basis, I predict we’ll acquire some level of control over traits that are now genetically fixed. Hair color and texture, skin color. These may become mutable. Race may diminish or disappear.

For wealthy, powerful families in the future seeking to consolidate power, marrying a family member (cousin, sibling) could again become the norm, as it was for monarchies of old. The latter lacked remedies for genetic diseases caused by in-breeding, but the former will not. Taken to another extreme, cloning will likely become accepted in certain circumstances: colonies needing rapid population growth, standing up armies (wait—those will be drones, not humans), or individuals wishing to procreate without a partner.2128618333_ce728437dc_b

Governments, religious groups, ethnic groups, and corporations will seek out and use hereditable genetic improvements in intelligence, memory, strength, speed, endurance. Genetic outliers for all of these have already been discovered and will provide a basis for genetic tinkering. Not everything will work, but enough will to set off an arms race among the various groups. A quick look at competitive sports shows this race began long ago and will simply enter a new era. As parents, families, and groups seek to take advantage of genetic enhancements, so too will incentives to discourage anyone from “sharing” them increase. A group that has invested in improving its genetics won’t want to spread those benefits outside its in-group by having members mate with non-members (the out-group). At first, social prohibitions will arise to be followed by genetic barriers installed specifically to prevent out-group mating. Having children with someone outside your group will become increasingly difficult. What does this mean? It means human speciation. It means groups of humans self-evolving, diverging from us, their common ancestor, over a period of a century or two or three until the “human race” is no longer a single species. What are the politics of that? I don’t know, but it probably won’t be pretty.

  1. Will we defeat aging?

SCIAM: This part of the article described various promising, potential anti-aging treatments but stopped short of predicting whether aging will be defeated or not.

DPS: As a biologist by training, I have no problem answering this question. The answer, unfortunately, is “Yes.” Given the trajectory of our biological knowledge, it is (in my opinion) just a matter of time before we discover the genetic, molecular, and cellular mechanisms behind aging and various aspects of tissue regeneration (including fully-functional replacement organs and limbs). Even Alzheimer’s will be conquered, I suspect, in the not too distant future. An immortal society has been imagined frequently in science fiction, but I’ve never attempted it. In part, because it’s been done but also because it seems so unappealing and downright scary. In one short story published by Asimov’s Science Fiction, humans have achieved immortality, and to curb overpopulation, having children is made a crime. Once immortal will we still be human? Without natural death will life be as meaningful? I’m not sure, but I suspect not. The ultra-aged in science fiction tend to be villains, enamored of their immortality and ruthlessly maintaining it. But I’m not convinced those living past 100 will be so enthusiastic. The value of death may evolve with individuals eventually timing the end of their lives deliberately. As Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in A Wizard of Earthsea, “Only in silence the word, only in dark the light, only in dying life: bright the hawk’s flight on the empty sky.”

  1. If we could, would we want to live forever?

SCIAM: A discussion ensues about the possibility of uploading our minds into the cloud/computers/virtual reality and the pros and cons of doing so. Various pro-uploading futurists are quoted (Ray Kurzweil, of course, David Chalmers, and others). The discussion ends without any real predictions about living forever.

Two inset discussions do offer predictions about topics unrelated to aging: will we ever colonize space and will we discover a twin Earth. Catharine Conley of NASA states: “…if the idea is to construct a self-sustaining environment where humans can persist indefinitely with only modest help from Earth—the working definition of a ‘colony’…then I’d say this is very far in the future, if it’s possible at all.” She cites a wide variety of unsolved technical problems including building robust  closed/contained eco-systems and air handling.

Aki Roberge, also of NASA, predicts will we find a twin Earth.

DPS: First, I’ll tackle the living forever question. I’m one of those people who’s not convinced this will ever be possible. Our brains, and our bodies, are vastly more complicated than most people realize. Even as someone with a biology background, I’m amazed at how complex life is. People like to think computers are approaching human-level intelligence, but they’re not even close IMO. Not even to a toddler. They only exceed our capabilities in narrow, artificially-confined tasks. But when put into the rugged, complicated reality of everyday life? No, they can’t even begin to do what we do. Even assuming uploading a human mind becomes possible, I suspect many people would balk. How would you know that software, that program of 0’s and 1’s, would really be you? It wouldn’t of course. Other people would leap at the opportunity. I would argue they’re not really living forever, not really living at all. Some downgraded replica, a digital mimic, of their personality will persist, but given how well our technology lasts (not very well currently), for how long? Much more likely is that humans will merge their brains with computers to become cyborgs with augmented memory and faster speed of thought. In many of my stories, no one has a phone or a TV or a modem—all these functions are handled by one or more microscopic devices built inside a human embryo’s developing skull linked to the optic and auditory nerves or directly into the brain’s sensory centers.Embryo,_8_cells

Second, I’d like to address the two questions about space: 1) Will we ever colonize space and 2) will we discover a twin Earth? The latter is easy. We find more planets all the time, and our technology for finding and describing them will only continue to improve. Statistically, it’s inevitable we’ll find an Earth analogue. Where will it be located and will we ever visit it are probably the more relevant questions.

On the former question about colonization of space, I’m more optimistic about this than Ms. Conley. For one, there hasn’t been much incentive to research self-contained eco-systems until recently. Now that there is a resurgence in the evolution of space flight technology through public- and private-sector ventures, I suspect it’s just a matter of time before humans are spending ever more time in space in new stations, on the moon, on asteroids, and on Mars. Each new facility containing humans reliant on that facility’s functioning for their very survival will contribute to a growing knowledge of what works and what doesn’t. Humans will live in space. It’s just a matter of time. And here is another area where genetic modifications will be relevant—humans with genetic mechanisms to repair the ill effects of radiation exposure, bone degeneration, etc. One of the new human species may be a space-faring one.

  1. How long will we last?

SCIAM: David Gordon of the Planetary Science Institute describes the most likely threats to humanity’s continued existence: global warming, overpopulation, asteroids and comets, food shortages, and ice ages. Gordon seems optimistic that we can survive. Carlton Caves (University of Mexico) echoes this optimism, suggesting we will likely survive the next 500 years. Frank Von Hippel (Princeton University) is somewhat more cautious—citing the continuing threat of nuclear war.

DPS: I’m equally optimistic as Gordon and Caves. I believe we humans will pull through whatever environmental disasters loom ahead. A better question would be how long will all the other species of plants and animals last? For many, the answer is not long. With our current environmental consumption and population growth, many species will be pushed into extinction due to habitat loss or degradation (ocean acidification comes to mind). As I said above, our descendants will inherit a biologically poorer world. It becomes more about the quality of the future—do we want our children to grow up in a world without coral reefs, rainforests, tigers, pandas, and all the other species many of us love? What would I give to see an endless herd of buffalo, passenger pigeons blotting out the sky, or a living thylacine? A lot. Will my children have the same sense of loss as I do? I predict they will, probably moreso.

  1. Can we trust our own predictions?

SCIAM: According to Ian Banks, the simple answer is ‘no’, but guessing can be a useful exercise as long as we don’t assign our predictions an accuracy they don’t really have.

DPS: Some predictions are naturally more reliable than others. Where the question is “will humans do X?”, I suggest the answer is almost certainly “Yes” within limitations. Anyway, I’ve made my predictions here, fallible* as they may turn out to be. What do you predict?

You say: “It’s _____________.” To which I say, “No, it’s bigger than that.” Let me explain. I’m working on the setting for a new series of novels, and one key decision is how Luis Calçada_under the milky waymuch of the Milky Way Galaxy do I take on? How much space could humanity colonize or even explore in a century or two or three (assuming we could travel faster than the speed of light)? If there are intelligent aliens out there (in my stories, this is a given), how much space would they have occupied if they’ve had spacecraft technology for a thousand years or a hundred  thousand or a million or more? Most science fiction books, television shows and movies only address a small Exoplanet with rings_Image courtesy of Ron Millernumber of locations, partly due to the limited budgets and screen time, or perhaps due to the effort involved in world-building. Yet the real galaxy is overflowing with locations.

Our galaxy is a disc roughly 100,000-180,000 light years across and around 2000-12,000 light years thick (excluding the Halo and the central bulge). Astronomers currently estimate it contains 100-400 billion stars and 100 billion planets, possibly many more than that. We occupy the Orion Arm, a minor arm (probably), and it alone is 3500 Hubble-Views-Globular-Cluster-IC-4499light years wide and perhaps 10,000 light years long. For comparison, using estimates from An Atlas of the Universe, the sphere of space going out a mere 20 light years from Earth contains around 109 stars (117 including brown dwarfs). Go out 50 light years, and the number of stars jumps to about 2000. Expand out to 250 light years and you have (by my calculations) around 250,000 stars. Expanding one more time to 5000 light years gives you 600 million stars. So far, we’ve identified almost 2300 exoplanets going out to a mere 8500 light years, yet our planet-detection technology is still in its infancy. That number will almost certainly rise. Conclusion: our galaxy is DENSE with stars and planets. It’s difficult to talk about occupying space at all given such an amazing concentration of potential places we could be. Even if we 600px-Nearby_Stars_(14ly_Radius).svgcan get to a certain distance, what does that mean, if we’ve put thousands or millions of unexplored star systems between us and home? When that journey eventually happens (I’m optimistic), will human expansion occur by leapfrogging swathes of unexplored space, or as a slower consolidated front of outward migration? Either way, what will that imply for governance, communication, military power, and cultural evolution in general?

I also find it hard to get a grasp on unique locations in the Milky Way, its geography. It’s not like a continent, where there are easily recognizable features such as mountain ranges, lakes or rivers. Yes, there are plenty of interesting Hubble_Sees_a_Horsehead_of_a_Different_Colorfeatures: nebulae (giant clouds of gas and dust) and star clusters, for example. But they are generally described as seen from Earth. In the context of a human, space-faring future (or an alien perspective), they wouldn’t look the same from other viewing points (the Horsehead Nebula wouldn’t resemble a horse head from a different angle). They can’t really be seen in the normal sense of the word at all (by a person viewing them without any optical assistance), given these structures are generally tens or 100’s of light years across and sometimes not even viewable with visible light. Visualization is a problem, at least for me. It’s true there are the spiral arms, nebulae and clusters, but they are structures of vast scales. If you want to look 100,000 starsmore finely at individual stars, there are maps out there (An Atlas of the Universe, Wikipedia, etc.) and even some nice 3-D visualizations (3DgalaxyMap, 100,000 Stars, etc.), but I find it hard to get a sense of location looking at star maps. Space, and the stars within it, seem more like a scatter of dust motes caught in a sunbeam. Turn it whichever way, but for a non-astronomer like me, it’s still just a volume of particles suspended in space.

If you know of better tools for visualizing space, please let me know. And if any aliens out there are reading this, I’d like to hear from you, too. Help us out here. How do you navigate through all that space?



Image credits (from top):

Luis Calçada: under the milky way

Exoplanet with rings_Image courtesy of Ron Miller


Nearby Stars (14ly Radius).svg


Screencap from 100,00 Stars

My family and I visited the California Science Center this weekend to see the IMAX movie “A Beautiful Planet” (3-D) and space shuttle Endeavor.

For someone who’s spent a lot of time watching You Tube videos of the International Space Station (ISS) and looking at remote imagery of Earth, A Beautiful Planet (ABP) didn’t provide me with a lot of new material. However, for kids or those unfamiliar with the ISS and its amazing views, it’s well worth the admission price. One thing I didn’t get from the You Tube videos was the sense of mission crews A Beautiful Planetcoming and going. ABP conveys the emotion of these periodic welcome aboard and subsequent farewell events on the ISS. You can really feel the camaraderie among all the astronauts from various countries as they joyfully greet each arriving crew. ABP captures many day-to-day experiences aboard the ISS such as a Christmas celebration, how to drink expresso, shampooing hair, sleeping, unpacking, and other mundane, yet delightfully zero-gravity, activities (including a fun scene involving a bag of citrus fruit intent on escaping). As its title would suggest, ABP also spends quite a bit of time focused on the Earth below. While the imagery of continents, oceans, and weather were beautiful and interesting (especially the part about storms), I wish the resolution had been better (to be fair, I believe the astronauts were limited in terms of the camera equipment they could use). The film excelled at displaying various locations as viewed from roughly 258 miles (416 kilometers) above the Earth’s surface, including day and night imagery. The final message ABP delivers is an environmental one. According to one astronaut speaking in the film, the concept of “spaceship Earth” becomes a literal truth for those lucky enough to see Earth from space. I only wish more of us could share that experience!

After the movie, we moved on to the space shuttle Endeavor exhibit. Endeavor didn’t disappoint, even on a second viewing, although my kids might not agree (my son had

more fun in the “Space Rollercoaster” multisensory, motion-based simulator). Space shuttle photos and videos just can’t convey the sense of power and grace you feel standing underneath Endeavor. The Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSMEs), in particular, are a marvel of engineering IMO. But even examining the shuttle’s scarred heat tiles is interesting. The

Center is gathering funds for construction of a permanent exhibit where Endeavor will be in full, vertical launch position (a “full shuttle stack”) with the twin solid-rocket boosters and the external tank (currently parked just outside the exhibit building). I look forward to


Planned final exhibit

seeing this amazing spacecraft in its new display configuration someday. Even as-is, though, if you’re in the area, it’s well worth a visit.

Do you have a favorite space exhibit? What’s your favorite part of the ISS? How much would you pay for a trip to orbit? Let me know in the comments!

What is the trajectory of warfare? Using science fiction examples, we might assume the soldier of tomorrow will be fighting in a powered, exoskeleton suit like Tom Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow. Edge of TomorrowOr perhaps piloting a giant, human-shaped mecha robot like those featured in many a manga/anime series and most recently in the film Pacific Rim. What about humans battling in space à la Star Wars’ X-wing fighters and Battlestar Galactica’s Vipers?

All these are unlikely to become a reality. Soldiers fighting in exosuits or inside giant mecha would be too unstable. Human pilots would be too slow. All of them would be too vulnerable to remain on the battlefield.

  • Stability: A two-legged, armored soldier or mecha  doesn’t make much sense from a stability standpoint. Vehicles and robots with four legs and/or wheels or tracks would be much more stable, allowing them to move more quickly over rough terrain.
  • Physical speed: Even with an exosuit, human soldierBigDog_Snows are unlikely to be able to move as quickly as future ground robots. Typical human walking speeds of 3-6 mph are already being approached by robots such as BigDog which can already move at up to 4 mph. Factor in physical limitations such as exhaustion and muscle fatigue, and a biological system will inevitably fall behind.
  • Vulnerability: The human body can’t take extreme accelerations. Even the best-protected organ, the brain, suffers from the relatively benign impacts encountered by boxers and football players (American football). IED victims suffer similar head trauma. Human pilots can take extreme g-forces (10’s to 100’s of g’s) for only very brief periods (seconds to minutes) before losing consciousness or suffering more severe injury. Their ability to survive impacts or endure vehicle acceleration will never compare to that of a machine (such as the drone fighter in the 2005 film Stealth).

Putting aside human limitations, war machines are more likely to decrease in size and cost than they are to get bigger.pacific_rim_banner-wide

“Defense Department agencies are researching and developing relatively inexpensive “swarm” systems, which humans could supervise during operations. ‘These efforts hint at the next paradigm shift in warfare — from fighting as a network of a few, expensive platforms as we do today, to in the future fighting as a swarm of many low-cost assets that can coordinate their actions,’ Scharre said [Paul Scharre, director of the 20YY Future of Warfare Initiative at CNAS].”1

Regardless of size or design, will humans operate these new attack machines? They won’t. Humans would be the weak link in command and control.

“ ‘Humans will not be able to match the capabilities of autonomous systems when it comes to certain types of operations such as missile defense or cybersecurity,’ Work said [Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work]. ‘When you’re under attack, especially at machine speeds, we want to have a machine that can protect us. … You cannot have a human operator, operating at a human speed, fighting back against a determined cyber attack. You’re going to have to have a learning machine that does that.’ ”1

Today, drone operators represent a small fraction of military combatants, but I suspect that fraction will gro800px-MQ-9_Reaper_UAVw and eventually eclipse the number of soldiers on the battlefield. Today’s drones and guided munitions require satellite-based communication.  Assuming enemy states will disrupt those communications, the potential for disruption will push for more drone autonomy and less human decision-making. Eventually, autonomous drones will command and coordinate other automata to carry out missions, making their own operational decisions according to previously established priorities, decision-making algorithms, and rules of engagement.

As autonomous drones become the prevalent combatants other aspects of warfare may change:

  • Increase in risk tolerance and aggressiveness as human soldiers are no longer in harm’s way.
  • Decrease in cost per combatant as drones become cheaper per Moore’s Law (cheaper computer components, materials, fabrication processes) vs. the perpetual rise in costs to train human soldiers, feed and house them, and heal and repatriate them once combat is over.
  • Military power will depend less on the ability to recruit and train citizens for military service and more than ever on the economic base, industrial capacity, and R&D to outproduce and outperform the enemy’s drone fleet.
  • Battles will be drone fleet against drone fleet.

Where does it go from there? Following this trajectory, military escalation will push towards greater AI, more machine autonomy, while squishy, vulnerable humans are relegated to defensible areas. But how well can those areas be defended?

Why use a human sniper when you can field a rifle placed by a unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) with a video aiming system controlled by a marksman (or anyone, really) thousands of miles away, puts just needs to put the cross-hairs on target and make the shot flawlessly—no rifle vibrations from an unsteady hand, breathing, moving, trigger pull—no need for a trigger at all. And why bother aiming the gun at all once self-guiding bullets are worked out? Mount a rifle on a UAV and you have a perfect sniper/assassin without the aggressor’s life being put at risk.

Go one step further down the road of miniaturization, and a future terrorist may be able to 3-D print a thousand UAV mini-mines, each with just enough explosive to murder an adult human by rupturing the victim’s carotid or femoral arteries or some other vulnerable point (eye, ear, etc.). The book Robopocalypse did a great job of imagining how machines themselves, once sentient, could re-engineer themselves to exploit the vulnerabilities of the human form: walking, heat-seeking mines for example. However, I doubt we’ll have to wait for the Singularity for this to happen. Militaries and terrorists will be more than happy to design these weapons much sooner than that. When/if the Singularity happens, it may be a moot point for the humans inhabiting that bleak future.

As weapons become miniaturized, autonomous, and cheap, how can society protect itself? Human-scale weapons won’t be necessary to kill a human target, nor could an exosuit defend against micro-mines. Only a suit of modern-day armor or perhaps a portable, rapidly repeating EMP (if one could be constructed with enough charge using a battery light enough to carry everywhere one goes) might be a plausible defense. Or perhaps everyone will sport their own phalanx of defensive micro-drones as in The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson. Even with these potential defenses in place, if your drones are fighting enemy drones “face-to-face,” you have, in all likelihood, already lost.

All of this points to violence increasingly performed by machines. Human soldiers, behind the front lines, will be safely ensconced in bunkers of concrete and steel. But once terrorists embrace these coming technologies, how long will it be before we civilians go into the bunker as well? And when will we ever come out? Warfare will become a video game we play in our living rooms for very high stakes.

Taking it to the extreme, in my short story, Lonely, Lonely, humans have merged with and essentially become self-contained war machines: each person inside their own customized, all-in-one bunker, weapons factory, and command and control center. Only the most vicious of each generation survive until they have evolved to live permanently entombed in armored, metal shells, their bodies vestigial and their brains expanded out of their skulls to interface with the computerized components they control.

Given the difficulty of predicting the future, I hope I’m wrong and this is a future we avoid. I for one don’t look forward to life in an underground bunker, but maybe I’m being too pessimistic. We can always pretend we’re back on the surface under a blue sky—VR is about to break out, and maybe that’s all we’ll really need.

Do you see a different future ahead of us, or maybe a technology I didn’t consider? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.



1Pentagon Seeks Smarter Machines for Future Combat, National Defense, March 2016, by Jon Harper.

Reaper image source: USAF Photographic Archives

BigDog image: